MEXICO CITY (BP)–Renowned Latino writer Octavio Paz wrote: he “… chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”
The object of his affection? Death.
Like many Latinos, Paz was taught to embrace death and celebrate those who die. In early November, all Latin America joins in a macabre festival called the Day of the Dead.
Weeks before the celebration are spent decorating gravesites, preparing favorite meals of deceased relatives and constructing elaborate altars.
For missionaries, however, the weeks are spent in prayer and preparation to share the message of a living God with those who revel in death.
“The Day of the Dead here in Aguascalientes, Mexico, is one of the worst holidays we face as missionaries,” said International Mission Board worker Robin Janney.
Although weeklong parades and parties usher in the Day of the Dead, the first two days of November are the pinnacle of the celebrations. On those days, relatives gather at family burial plots to have a feast with the deceased. Brightly colored flowers, vibrant streamers and tissue paper cutouts of skeletons and coffins litter the ground. Fireworks shower colorful sparks above mourners to announce the beginning of open-air memorial masses.
International Mission Board missionaries David and Laurie Bledsoe used the idea of mourning masses as an opportunity to share hope with mourners in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
“I saw this [holiday] as a perversion of truth, a perversion of the theology of life after death,” David Bledsoe said. “I knew we could offer hope in Jesus to those participating in the cemetery that day.”
Missionaries partnered with a local Baptist church to offer a “meeting of comfort” in the cemetery chapel for those who had lost a loved one. Christians distributed invitations with a gospel tract and directions to the chapel. After a local pastor presented the gospel, Christians gave each person a rose as a sign of God’s love and their respect for the family.
“We showed love to them. We spoke straight to them and we shared hope,” Bledsoe said. “Using the same words, we gave a different meaning to hope for death and salvation through Jesus.”
Every region has its own traditions and customs for observing the Day of the Dead.
In Mixcuac, a district of Mexico City, mourners tend to exhibit more rural customs. At 2 p.m. on All Saints’ Day, relatives gather at the tombs to mourn with “la llorada,” the weeping. And when darkness would normally set in, thousands of candles softly light the way for the dead. The souls are called home at midnight with the mournful tolling of the bells.
In Aguascalientes, Mexico, children dress as skeletons or some other gruesome reflection of death and go house-to-house asking for candy. This “trick-or-treating” continues for several days as the children receive candy and bread in the shape of corpses, coffins or skulls.
The Janney’s attempted to hold a cell group meeting during one of these days.
“It was terrible to try to teach the Bible lesson with someone banging on the [garage door] every few minutes,” Janney said. “I felt like we were in a spiritual battle the whole two hours we were together.”
Instead of candy, Janney offered miniature tracts to trick-or-treaters.
Apologetic explanations for why the day is wrong are not heard, Bledsoe said. Christians must be sensitive when they share the gospel with those celebrating the holidays. Through offering love and sympathy to mourners, Christians then can create ways to offer hope for after death, he said.
Churches in America can help through prayer and by providing supplies, such as tracts and roses for mourners, he added.
“The U.S.-based church can set aside a couple of days for prayer and fasting, providing some supplies and educating the church on this,” he said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: KEEPING VIGIL.